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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile Series #9: Lester Brown: Keeping Watch on the World

Air Date: Week of

The WorldWatch Institute tracks global environmental trends. Their publications are translated into two dozen languages and have influenced environmentalists and policymakers around the world. Reporter Alex Van Oss profiled Lester Brown, a farmer turned statistician, who founded and now directs the Institute.


CURWOOD: When Lester Brown speaks, people listen. For years the publications of this quietly charismatic man and his think tank, the World Watch Institute, have been some of the world's most widely quoted analyses of environmental and resource issues. Lester Brown has studied how humans use the Earth for more than 2 decades, and his findings have pleased some and vexed others. He leads a simple lifestyle, and in the morning, while most D.C. commuters battle traffic, Lester Brown puts on comfortable shoes and walks to work. We sent reporter Alex Van Oss to join him recently, as part of our series of profiles of 25 leading environmental figures.

(Birdsong and footfalls)

VAN OSS: Lester Brown was born during the 1930s, the Great Depression years. He grew up on a farm. And that, he said, was good training for a future of analyzing and predicting global trends.

BROWN: I think one of the things that farmers sort of automatically become is interdisciplinary, (Under his breath: "Look at this mockingbird!"). They have to worry about economics obviously. They're meteorologists, they're agronomists for sure. They have to be managers.

VAN OSS: Lester Brown was the first member of his family to graduate from elementary school. He was a tomato-picking champion as a teenager, and for a while it looked like farming tomatoes would be his career. But instead, Brown went to live in India, and then returned to the States to work for a decade at the Department of Agriculture. That's where his field experience and farmer's eye began to lead Brown into a kind of social activism on a global scale.

BROWN: In 1965, India experienced a monsoon failure. I happened to have picked up the fact that they were going to have an extraordinarily short harvest, and that estimate became the basis for launching the largest food relief effort ever undertaken. In 1965 we shipped a fifth of our wheat crop to India.

(Keys unlocking a gate)

VAN OSS: So you're the first in at the office?

BROWN: Not always.

VAN OSS: I'm told you work your employees hard; is that true?

BROWN: That's what they say. (Laughs.)

VAN OSS: At the office, Brown scans a half dozen newspapers each morning, noting price indexes and weather reports - all potential fodder for the World Watch Institute's magazines and books on social and environmental trends. Lester Brown is proud of his complete collection of World Watch's annual State of the World reports, now published in more than 2 dozen languages.

BROWN: Japanese, Finnish, Indonesian, Turkish, Basque...

VAN OSS: Right now. Lester Brown is writing a book about China. He's worried that China will soon have to import so much grain that it's going to absorb foreign surpluses. And that, he says, will drive up international grain and food prices as never seen before. Brown says China's population is so huge that even to provide every Chinese with a single extra bottle of beer would require an additional 370,000 tons of grain.

BROWN: Interestingly I was in Norway, and I used that example. And one of the reporters at the press conference was sort of scribbling on his pad, and he raised his hand and he said, "Three bottles of beer in China is the Norwegian grain harvest."

VAN OSS: World Watch's environmental studies have almost unparalleled reach. Ted Turner alone buys hundreds of copies of the State of the World report every year to give away to state governors, members of Congress, and heads of all the Fortune 500 companies. And the organization is consulted by universities, private groups, and governments around the world. Many of their predictions have been on the mark. For instance, they accurately foresaw the decline of most of the world's fisheries, which has recently prompted a series of international conflicts. But Brown and World Watch were off the mark when they predicted large increases in world oil prices, which never happened. World Watch has many devotees, but also detractors who say its forecasts are unnecessarily negative or just plain wrong. Lester Brown acknowledges the criticism, but isn't bothered by it.

BROWN: I mean, we make mistakes. We don't always make the right calls when we're doing projections. But no one does.

VAN OSS: For all the gloomy things in store for the globe, World Watch also finds room to outline positive scenarios, a vision of a world with sustainable resources, solar power, hydrogen fuels. With population growth under control and a steady food supply. But that world isn't here yet, and until it is, Lester Brown keeps his weather eye to the worrisome and continues to warn.

BROWN: The world is beginning to run into natural limits on the food front - the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries, the availability of fresh water from underground aquifers, the ability of crop varieties to effectively respond to the addition of still more fertilizer. It's the first time that this series of collisions is going to affect the entire world, because rising food prices will affect everyone in some way.

VAN OSS: Could you be wrong?

BROWN: I doubt it! (Laughs.)

VAN OSS: For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss in Washington.



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